Keen to sail away from Singapore on a Southeast Asia adventure, but don’t know which of the many ships to choose? Here are some tips from travel writer and cruise specialist HEIDI SARNA.
A cruise around Southeast Asia is a convenient way to get an overview of the region, especially if you’re travelling with children, elderly parents or out-of-towners. You unpack once and your floating hotel hits the highlights of several countries in the space of anywhere from four to 14 days. On longer itineraries, guest lecturers present talks about the ports and culture of the particular country, and local groups are brought on board to perform – classical Thai dancers, for example. Shorter cruises focus more on fun and simply enjoying the ride, and the average age of guests tends to be lower.
The hard part is figuring out the best itinerary, as there are more ships exploring the Orient than ever before. To help make sense of the options, think of cruising in Asia as falling into two main areas: east and west.
These voyages tend to be longer, from about 10 to 14 nights, and typically sail one way between Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong or Tianjin, China. Most itineraries include stops at several ports along the coast of Vietnam, typically Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Da Nang for Hoi An and Hue, and Halong Bay. Bangkok and Hong Kong are also sometimes ports of call along the way if they’re not the beginning or endpoint of a voyage. Koh Samui in Thailand, Redang and Tioman in Malaysia, and Sihanoukville in Cambodia are all increasingly included in eastern itineraries for their beaches. Holland America, Crystal Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Silversea, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas, Windstar and Azamara Club Cruises are some of the lines that regularly ply the eastern part of the region.
As the number and the size of the ships in the Far East increases, itinerary options are growing beyond the standards, with calls to ports in Japan and South Korea on the rise. For instance, Princess Cruises bases ships in Japan from April each year, with cruises of varying lengths visiting more than 20 ports in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Russia. There are also a handful of itineraries that focus on Indonesia; for example, Holland America sails from Singapore to Java (for Borobudur), Bali, Lombok and Komodo Island.
Temples: The stunning gilded temples, monasteries and stupas of Bangkok can’t be matched, though the less ornate 16th- and 17th-century Chinese temples in Vietnam’s Hoi An and in Hue’s mid-19th-century seven-tiered Thien Mu Pagoda are beauties in their own right. Nha Trang’s Po Nagar complex dates back more than a thousand years, while Pattaya’s ornate wooden temple is new, but still something to see if you don’t feel like travelling all the way to Bangkok.
Architecture: Hanoi’s French colonial architecture and wide, tree-lined boulevards are enchanting, while hundreds of 16th-to-18th-century Chinese and Japanese-influenced buildings in the imperial city of Hoi An are impressive enough to have been collectively deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site. Hong Kong is notable for its skyscrapers, and its skyline is among the tallest and most picturesque in the world.
Natural beauty: The ancient limestone pillars, caves and other rock formations in Vietnam’s Halong Bay are spectacular and can be explored on a traditional-style fishing junk. The wide, white sands of Vietnam’s China Beach (where American GIs were airlifted for “R and R” during the war) are set dramatically against the backdrop of the Marble Mountains. Thailand’s Chaweng Beach, on the island of Koh Samui, beats Phuket for its sand quality, scenery and more laidback vibe.
Mekong River Delta: If your ship is small enough to transit the Saigon River (Seabourn, Crystal, Silversea and SeaDream ships are), you’ll enjoy several hours meandering along the waterway between the South China Seas and Ho Chi Minh City, a rare opportunity to see the rice fields and small boats of the Mekong River Delta up close.
Overnight in port: Most ships dock for two or three days in the ports for Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Bangkok to give passengers more time to explore.
Lacquer: In Vietnam, shop for lacquer boxes, tableware, coasters and furniture. Many guided tours include shopping stops.
Military history buffs: The Cu Chi Tunnels are an intricate underground tunnel system, dug more than 60 years ago outside of Ho Chi Minh City by the Viet Cong and used in their fight against French and American forces during the Vietnam War. The city’s War Museum has a graphic photo collection that illustrates the brutality of war.
Long drives to attractions: In most ports on the eastern routes, it’s a long (up to four hours) bus or taxi-ride each way between the cruise docks and the main attractions; for example, in the cities of Hue and Halong Bay. Smaller ships can navigate closer to the main cities and attractions in a few places, including Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Hong Kong.
Industrial ports: Several of the stops are at unattractive container ports, where giant cranes and gantries dominate the view from cabin balconies and windows.
Holland America’s 1,440-passenger Volendam is an appealing mid-sized ship with a classic navy-blue hull, and it forgoes glitz and theme park gimmicks in pursuit of a more refined, traditional cruise experience. Between December and March, it does two-week cruises between Singapore and Hong Kong, one of which I recently sampled with my family.
More affordable than luxury lines like Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Regent Seven Seas and Azamara that ply similar Far East routes, the Volendam still offers some built-in extras that similarly priced cruise lines, such as Star, Royal Caribbean and Costa, don’t. For example, you can enjoy free canapés served in the bars before dinner, daily white-gloved high tea in the dining room, free movies in a real theatre and fresh floral arrangements around the ship. Another rare feature: Volendam’s extensive library has hundreds of volumes on travel, history and more, as well as a slew of fiction titles.
Its wraparound outdoor promenade deck is another reason this ship stands above its peers, inviting passengers to stroll and jog while gazing at an approaching port or the big blue sea. Standard cabins are larger than those aboard Royal Caribbean, Star and Costa, with perks like shower-and-tub combos, lighted magnifying makeup mirrors, DVD players and bathrobes.
On the dining side, kudos goes to Volendam’s better-than-average fruit selection, with exotics like rambutan, jackfruit and papaya part of the buffet spread. My sons especially enjoyed the free hot-out-of-the-oven pizza, plus the French fries and nachos served poolside. They were also drawn, no surprise, to the freshly made chocolate chip cookies and free ice cream in the Lido buffet restaurant. Eating became an activity for them as much as the video games and activities in the supervised playroom, which sees the most business during holiday cruises. One of the ship’s four restaurants, Canaletto’s serves tasty (but heavy) Italian pastas, plus an antipasto course and homemade breads (for $10 extra per person); a nice alternative to the main dining room.
14-night Volendam cruises between Singapore and Hong Kong start at US$1,599 per person, including meals, entertainment and most activities.
These shorter cruises are mostly less than a week and typically sail round-trip from Singapore, north through the Strait of Malacca, and along the western coastline of Malaysia and Thailand. Star Cruises, Royal Caribbean and Costa Cruises are the big players in these parts, though a few other cruise lines, including SeaDream, Crystal and Silversea, do longer itineraries here, going as far north as Myanmar.
What’s great about the western itineraries is that the main attractions are fairly close to the ship docks. In Penang, the charming island’s historical sites are close by and easily accessible via cycle rickshaw, bus, taxi or on foot. It’s the same story for the beaches: the best ones are less than a 30-minute drive from cruise docks. Even for Melaka and Port Kelang (the access point for Kuala Lumpur), which are further away from the main attractions, it’s still no more than an hour.
Beaches: The wide, white-sand beaches of Malaysia’s Langkawi, especially Kok and Cenang beaches on the west coast, are arguably some of the best in Southeast Asia. Phuket’s strips of sand, such as Patong, are bustling, fun places, though they tend to be narrow and buzzing with jet-skiers who carelessly zip close to swimmers.
Culture: In Penang, the Khoo Kongsi Chinese clan house and the hilltop Kek Lok Si temple complex are close by and worthwhile; same for Phuket’s gilded Wat Chalong monastery. Malacca’s main site is the 16th-century Porta de Santiago fortress, built by the Portuguese, the first Europeans to establish a presence in Southeast Asia. Smaller ships occasionally venture north to Myanmar, and from the port of Yangon, two-day inland excursions visit the spectacular temples and monuments of Bagan.
Natural beauty: Craggy limestone formations, cliffs and caves frame arcs of white-sand beach in and around Thailand’s gorgeous Phi Phi Islands; the snorkelling is good here too. The jungles of Langkawi harbour picturesque waterfalls and lots of birdlife, from hornbills to eagles, kingfishers and herons, as well as long-tailed macaques.
Accessibility: Most of the main attractions on the western cruise itineraries, from beaches to temples to fortresses, are within a half-hour of the cruise ship docks.
Reckless jet skiers: In Thailand especially, watch out for fearless jet-skiers and paragliders who encroach on swimming areas.
Culture void: While there are a few temples and religious monuments, they can’t compare to what you’ll find in Bangkok and are nowhere as old as those you’ll see in Vietnam.
Last year, my family and I cruised aboard the 1,928-passenger Italian-built Costa Victoria on a round-trip from Singapore. The recently refurbished ship sports fresh new furnishings while retaining classic features such as generous amounts of wooden deck and furniture, oversized portholes and a traditional barrel-style funnel. The Victoria has some European touches too, from its mostly Italian officers to tile mosaics and excellent breads and pastries. Not all the food gets applause, mind you (lukewarm pink hot dogs at lunch, for example), but the meals in the Club Magnifico specialty restaurant (US$33.50) were excellent, especially the porcini soup and the grilled salmon with couscous and spinach. At dinner in the main restaurant, we fought over the addictive breadsticks, which are baked on board daily, and the Indian selections and pasta dishes were consistently good.
This is squarely a middle-of-the-road cruise for families and couples, many of whom dress extremely casually, even in the main restaurant at dinner (flip flops and T-shirts). Cabins are on the small side, but pluses include stocked mini-bars stuffed with snacks, soft drinks, beer and wine (for a per-item fee).
The evening entertainment was a highlight, and it was hard to find an empty seat in the show lounge for an acrobatic act, a magic show featuring the classic sawed-in-half assistant, and a concert featuring a singer who sang Adele songs nearly perfectly. Costa’s famous late-night contests in the nightclubs attracted a small but dedicated crowd of slapstick humour lovers (on Costa’s European cruises the shows are packed), as teams of couples were asked to do things like shove ping pong balls in each other pants or pop balloons attached to their backsides. You get the picture.
A floating United Nations of Asians, Australians, Europeans and North Americans, the ship’s passengers and crew struggled at times to communicate. The instructions on the gym equipment were all in Chinese and it was hard for me to understand our Japanese cabin steward, or the woman running the bingo game. With my five words of French, I helped a French woman operate the coffee machine in the buffet restaurant.
Still, it all worked somehow. The crew was friendly and hardworking, and we appreciated their helping my niece, who uses a wheelchair, to get on and off the ship in port, both of which unfortunately required the use of time-consuming tender boats to get ashore. Language didn’t matter much when it came to the excellent deep tissue massage and manicure my niece and I signed up for in the spa. My 11-year-old twin sons were too old for the small (and packed) kids’ club and too young for the large (and empty) teen room, but they were happy to play table tennis and foosball with other tweens.
Round-trip four-night Costa Victoria cruises from Singapore to Phuket, Thailand, and Langkawi, Malaysia, start from US$519 per person, including meals, entertainment and most activities.
This story first appeared in Expat Living’s May 2015 issue.
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